Muza wine bar puts Safed in the spotlight

Muza wine bar concentrates on the wines of the North of Israel and the region also is reflected in the food offerings.

 MUZA WINE bar in Safed.  (photo credit: DANIEL LAYLA)
MUZA WINE bar in Safed.
(photo credit: DANIEL LAYLA)

It took vision for Shimon Kipnis to recognize the potential of the filthy space in front of him. The abandoned rooms functioned as a sometimes bar and were far from the chic and relaxing dream he actualized.

Incognito, Kipnis toured Safed’s Old City. With his experienced eye – following successful turnarounds at the Alma Hotel in Zichron Ya’acov and the Scottish Hotel in Tiberias – he quickly called Anat Barak to come and see the space he stumbled upon. Barak, an experienced sommelière, came and saw, “There were only two cabinets visible in the neglected area within a domed room,” she said, “the rest was covered in mud and debris.”

Kipnis envisaged a wine cellar. Barak met his instincts with quite a few of her own.

That was the inception of Muza wine bar at the Ruth Hotel in Safed, where Kipnis has been CEO since the veteran Ruth Rimonim Hotel joined the prestigious Dan Hotel chain in 2019.

Coming under the wings of the large chain at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and the near-paralysis of tourism turned out to be a gift in disguise. It provided the staff with an opportunity to upgrade the grounds, add facilities and have their talented in-house designers take a go at the sprawling property. It took three months to purchase, clean out, renovate and bring about a total overhaul to achieve its appealing current state.

 MUZA WINE bar sommelière Anat Barak.  (credit: SENDI TWARFA) MUZA WINE bar sommelière Anat Barak. (credit: SENDI TWARFA)

More a winter person than a summer person, I loved winding through the whispy fog to reach Safed and it was well worth it just to enter this modern lounge with its inviting calm vibe. There is great jazz softly enveloping the rooms. For Barak, this is an essential element. In addition to her wine expertise, she is an amateur DJ and selects the playlist for the wine bar with a clear intent to create an atmosphere in which to fully enjoy savoring wine. Whether Art Tatum, Miles Davis or Cafe d’Anatolia, the Muza playlist is designed for a mellow environment.

The wines are delicate organisms

BARAK NOTES that the wines themselves are delicate organisms that require low-vibration surroundings. Despite a game of the Mondiale being quietly viewed in the adjacent room, the wines were not affected because there was no raucous jeering.

Muza wine bar concentrates on the wines of the North of Israel and the region also is reflected in the food offerings. Barak sees balance as key in Muza wine bar. Everything from the music to the drinks to the menu is matched one with the other. Barak views being a sommelier as a wine curator, “not just what to include but also what to leave out,” she says.

The mild autumn chill soon dissolved when I was served their version of glühwein. Mulled wine is mostly associated with cold climates, such as the Swiss or Aspen après-ski scenes. Israel, mostly known for its strong summer sun, does not jump to mind as a cool climate destination. As my favorite season, it is the best time to visit, pleasantly cool and often fewer crowded tour buses to congest the sites.

“Perfect,” pronounces Barak as she tastes the concoction, “spicy but not too strong and not too mild. Just right.” It takes on a Galilean twist, including warm Mizrahi spices: cardamom, cinnamon, allspice, cloves, anise, and cubed fresh apple and pear from nearby orchards.

Barak has strong roots in the North of Israel. The North, considered peripheral in many endeavors, is at the cutting edge of the wine industry. Barak herself came to this field through intimate hands-on experience.

She traveled all over Israel to learn the wine industry over an 18-year span. “My corkscrew has opened over 10,000 bottles,” she says with pride, including her stint at the famed La Regence restaurant at Jerusalem’s Dan-owned King David Hotel.

A compact selection from across the northern vineyards is available under the Mamluk-era domed roof. She sought “a balance between classic choices and wines. I encourage guests to try that they may not yet know. I like to expose those who are interested to new trends in wines and new varieties,” says Barak.

The Muza wine bar menu can be found online in Hebrew but a full English translation is available there. Wine by the glass starts at NIS 38 for a semi-dry white, continues to NIS 40 for a rosè, NIS 45 for a dry white, NIS 48 for a daily special red wine and NIS 60 for a premium dry red wine. Wines are also sold by the bottle, such as a 375-ml. bottle of 2019 Cabernet Sauvignon in the Gamla line from the Golan Heights winery and full-sized bottles are available in every category, topped with two magnum size choices: the 2019 Gamla Cabernet Sauvignon for NIS 350 and the 2017 Yiron from Galil Mountain winery for NIS 750 – the most expensive bottle they offer.

There are many bottles available in the NIS 100-200 bracket, with some unusual options: an organic wine from the boutique Odem Mountain winery in the Golan Heights, wines from mature grapevines and even wines from the northernmost volcanic Golan terroir. No doubt that the casual tourist and the experienced wine aficionado will each have a wonderful time pouring over the menu as they choose their pour.

Food plays a supporting role here so that the wine can take center stage. Barak paired some snacks from the Mezze menu for me, including Sultan Baibars Stick – a deep-fried tube filled with Galilee cheeses and wild za’atar, served with an assertively-spiced Bandura (tomato-based) dip, priced at NIS 40, and roasted “Mahshi” mini peppers, fire-scorched peppers stuffed with local goat cheese and hints of honey, lemon and olive oil, priced at NIS 25. Each comes with colorful salad complements. Both hit the spot without overpowering the wine diva.

Further research

LATER IN the evening, I returned with my “plus 1” for further research. We veered into the world of cocktails and spirits. He opted for a Pomegranate Negroni that was declared well-made, while I conducted my personal test to see what would arrive when ordering a Mojito.

In truth, I often pass up on cocktails in Israel having suffered from dashed high expectations too often. But, someone clearly knows their mixology here, it came brightly lemony and neither overly tart nor cloyingly sweet, and with fresh nana leaves kicking it up to bring it to perfection. Helly Mikel, who served us, got the balance just right. With their herb garden steps away, it doesn’t get more local than that. Both were priced at NIS 50.

Though sated from snacks, we were served whiskey chasers from the Golan Heights Distillery. Muza offers three of their single malt whiskeys all made from local spring water, other elements and aged at least three years in oak casks in the very arid Golan. They are: Rishon, for their first Israeli-made whiskey, Vino and Black, each available at the reasonable price of NIS 50 per 60 ml. serving (mana, in Hebrew).

Muza wine bar brings a welcome nightlife option to Safed. It offers a variety of seating options, such as outdoor tables to watch the sun’s path over Mount Meron across the valley, table-height or low cocktail tables with sofas and even some high barstools where you can interact with the friendly wait staff. There was a decidedly international flair during our visit: Dubai tourists were overheard happily gleaning their own impressions of Israel in person.

Weekend visitors are advised to arrive for Barak’s lecture on the history of wine in the Middle East, presenting her fascinating jaunt through the millennia in the development of wine culture in this region and winding up in current times, which really is the most exciting of all. Since 1983’s groundbreaking establishment of the Golan Heights winery, Barak says there is a surge to find our own local wine identity. With 150 varieties already on the scene, it is an unfolding and exciting work in progress.

The History of wine in Israel and the Middle East lecture is at 4:30 p.m. on Friday afternoons.

There are also weekend entertainment options on offer. Be sure to ask about updates when calling for your reservations. 

The writer is an artist and will be presenting her new limited edition memoir, called Life-Tumbled Shards at the In Print Art Book Fair, from Jan 11-13, at Jerusalem’s Hansen House. She was a guest of Muza wine bar and the Ruth Safed Hotel.